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Natural Gas and Climate Change: It’s Policy that Matters

by Michael Levi
March 19, 2012


Study after study seems to be reaching the same conclusion: abundant natural gas is no solution for climate change. Indeed some scientists, having looked at the numbers, have come to an even harsher conclusion: there is so much unconventional gas in the ground that our only hope for dealing with climate change is to leave it untouched.

The chart below, which is frequently invoked by skeptics of unconventional resource development, seems to reinforce the point. The amount of carbon contained in conventional oil and gas makes their extraction look tolerable, but the amount contained in unconventional gas (and in coal) is literally off the charts.

Carbon stored in fossil fuels

Chart courtesy of James Hansen

Alas this picture is hugely misleading. Here’s another series of charts that shows why.

The first chart shows four different estimates. The top two both show projected carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. power sector; each has a different assumption about U.S. gas reserves. One assumes that natural gas is roughly as abundant as we thought it was in 2010, while the other assumes that reserves are substantially larger. You’ll notice that projected emissions are barely affected by the choice.

Emissions Projections Under American Power Act

EIA Projections of Power Sector Emissions Under the American Power Act

Now look at the bottom two lines. They’re both projections of what would have happened to power sector emissions had the Kerry-Lieberman cap-and-trade bill passed; one assumes moderate gas resources while the other assumes much larger ones. Those two lines are both radically lower than the ones without policy – but they’re both similar to each other. The lesson is simple: it’s the policy, not the gas resource, that matters most. Indeed if you look closely, emissions fall more if gas resources are larger, because gas with CCS becomes an economically attractive emissions-cutting option.

Perhaps this is an artifact of the particular policy? Nope. Here’s a similar chart, this time with a Clean Energy Standard rather than cap-and-trade. The pattern is the same.

Projections of Emissions under CES

EIA Projections of Power Sector Emissions Under Clean Energy Standard

None of this should surprise you. Absent demand-side policy, abundant natural gas displaces coal and renewable power, and increases electricity consumption. With demand-side policy, abundant natural gas displaces renewable and nuclear power, unless CCS isn’t available, in which case, by the 2030s, gas gets phased out.

But cheap natural gas does have one big bonus from a climate perspective: it makes cutting emissions less expensive. The lesson for people who care about climate change should be simple. Focus on constraining gas supplies, and even if you win, you’re unlikely to effect much change. Concentrate on demand side policy and your odds of victory may be longer, but a win will be far more worthwhile.

Post a Comment 10 Comments

  • Posted by Jungle Jim

    It’s stupid ideas like this that give ammunition to conspiracy theorists like the John Birch Society.

    There is no evidence that the climate is warming at all. And no proof that carbon dioxide emissions can cause it to warm.

  • Posted by Kurt Novak @ AcreageforSale

    There’s no question in my mind that the demand for electricity will increase significantly, mostly due to demand side policies, such as promoting electric cars. Barring any major government intervention, the electricity will be produced by the least expensive fuel, which seems to be natural gas.

    I believe a cap and trade model will make the production of electricity even more expensive and, therefore, the use of el. power in cars less attractive.

  • Posted by LMADster

    “Concentrate on demand side policy…”

    Bravo! Finally someone in the AGW community is wising up fter a lost decade of bungling the sales jobs for a meaningful carbon tax by relying on shyster salesmen such as algore, Solendra, Cap and Trade and East Anglia University as well as conflating climate change with “social justice” and global income redistribution.

    Now that we have the momentum, let’s push ourselves intellectually, then call it a day:

    1) If the solution to too much CO2 in the air is to use less fossil fuels, why is NOT the solution to too much federal debt to use less government?

    2) If the optimal amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350 ppm (current=389 ppm) because that is the optimal concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere that life as we know most likely can continue, why is 18% of GDP (current =25% GDP) NOT the optimal size of the federal government since that is the size that most likely yields maximum economic growth?

    Get those two questions right and you’ll have Conservatives begging you for a carbon tax.

    Think about it. Progressives and Conservatives are actually making the same apocalyptic argument albeit on different issues. They both make good arguments for action. But the public is yawningly uninterested in AGW and unwilling to make the hard choices on America’s fiscal problems. Buying off the opposition is the American way.It’s time for progressives concerned about rising temperatures and conservatives concerned about rising federal debt to realize the obvious: they need to BUY each other off in order to effectively address their pet ideological concerns-there is no other way. This means trading, among other things, a carbon tax for a balanced budget amendment and a more limited government. This plan — the LMAD PLAN — is outlined at

    The LMAD PLAN BUYS OFF Liberals with much more than just a $600 billion carbon tax. It also adds fully-funded Healthcare for every American, a public option health insurance entity, and the implementation of tax schemes frequently advocated by Liberals such as a “sugar” tax and a value-added tax. The LMAD plan even grants overnight amnesty of 10 million illegal aliens.

    LMAD buys off Conservatives with much more than a balanced budget and limited government ; it permanently ends future illegal immigration, adds tort reform and completely replaces all taxes on production, labor, saving and investment with the new carbon tax, the value-added tax and the sugar tax.

    The LMAD plan even removes the burden of healthcare expenses from corporate balance sheets by ending our reliance on employer-provided health insurance.

    Wahla! Green tech, energy efficiency, green jobs, cleaner air WITHOUT costly government regs or Obama-instituted crony capitalism.

  • Posted by Westie

    Oh my, the AGW fraud is becoming hysterical, the game is up. Another stupid meme, “we must control everything NOW, if not all will all die”…..your desperation is delicious!

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    Commenters are advised to actually study some climatology before writing opinions which are far removed from the actual physics. I started with W.F. Ruddiman’s “Earth’s CLimate: Past and Future” and I continue to recommend it as an introduction.

  • Posted by Lorne Stockman

    Demand side policy certainly is important and needs to be implemented. However, there’s an aspect of Hansen’s analysis that you are perhaps dismissing Michael. Exports. Hansen calculates the CO2 impact of burning all that fossil fuel. I’m not sure if he’s including extraction and processing emissions but let’s assume he isn’t, which would therefore make it a low estimate.

    Either way, the resource is there and the industry’s ambition is to extract it. As we are seeing, the shale gas boom has created a glut and prices are low. The gas industry is therefore now pushing hard for LNG exports to expand it’s market and raise the price of gas in North America so it can extract more gas and make more money. Unfortunately, the atmosphere is global rather than politically bound, so there are therefore limits to how much gas can be supplied into the global system within a given timeframe.

    So U.S. demand side policies, though important, will not prevent the emissions that are inherent in the existence of those gas reserves unless there is a supply side policy. We need both if we’re serious about controlling climate change.

    Neither can we look at gas in isolation. The point of Hansen’s graph is to show that from a climate perspective, we can’t burn all the fossil fuels that have been ‘discovered’ by the development of technologies that allow us to produce unconventional oil and gas.

    We need supply and demand policies that begin with an analysis of how much we can afford to burn to prevent irreparable harm to the climate system. And we currently seem to be so lost in the lure of newly found resources that we have come further than ever from finding the political will to do that.

  • Posted by Dennis Raschke

    Jungle Jim is right. The whole premise of the article is based on flawed assumptions… that man causes global warming… and that we need to reduce carbon emissions to fix the problem. Much to the dismay of climate pseudo scientists, the earth has not been getting warmer in the past 15 years. Based on hundreds of thousands of years of ice core samples, it appears that more carbon dioxide is released from the oceans and biosphere following warm periods. The emerging consensus is that warming causes increased carbon dioxide levels, not the other way around. Further, CO2 is a miniscule (.039%) component of air and greater than 95% of it is from natural sources i.e, the oceans and biomass on land. CO2 is believed to have been 5 times higher in the Jurassic period when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Calling it a pollutant is just plain wrong. CO2 is beneficial to life. If man were to reduce his carbon emissions, it would have such a small effect on our environment that it would be immeasurable.

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    Another commenter who simply does not know what he is talking about. Learn some basic climatology before commenting, please.

  • Posted by Raindog

    This is very good. It makes me feel better as I have been thinking that for the foreseeable future switching from coal to about 80% gas and 20% renewables is about as good as it is likely to get. The comments on this post tell us why. There is a segment of the population that is adamantly opposed to doing anything to curtail emissions and they really seem to be convinced that they are right. As long as this is the case,gas is our only realistic hope.

    There are some on both sides for whom AGW is more important as a political issue than for any other reason. On the right, being opposed to scientific consensus is a badge of honor. On the left, being opposed to oil companies and their republican backers is more important than what is best for our future. They will believe almost anything that makes gas look bad.

  • Posted by Dennis Raschke

    “We face the prospect of climate catastrophe unless we reduce carbon emissions. Temperatures will rise. There will be mass extinctions. Our coastal cities will flood. Super volcanoes will erupt. The earth will tilt 90 degrees on its axis. We will be swallowed by a black hole. The time to act is now.” – President Obama, April 1st, 2012. An April Fools’ joke of course, but there is usually an element of truth to a joke.

    Obama’s energy policies, including his discouraging production and use of fossil fuels, support of ‘cap and tax’ and EPA mandates, are bad policies driven by bad science. His policies will lead to tremendously higher energy costs and trillions of dollars wasted with no measurable change in climate. We have been hearing for years that CO2 is a greenhouse gas that will result in catastrophic climate change; that we need to act now to save the earth. However, since “climategate” a couple of years ago, more and more scientists are questioning this view. The climate “scientists” such as Peter Glieck at the IPCC, Phil Jones of East Anglia University, Michael Mann of Penn State and their cronies have been discredited as scientists. Peter is on a leave of absence, Phil has been fired and Michael is job hopping, fighting lawsuits and defending investigations. Their “models”, which they refuse to share with the rest of world, appear to be junk science. What are they hiding? Shouldn’t science be verifiable? OK, I admit I am a “skeptic”, so sue me.

    Now another disclaimer… I am not a scientist. But I am passionate about science and the discovery of knowledge. I have taken it upon myself to try to learn as much as I can about climate science. The following is a synopsis of what I know and think I know. Feel free to challenge or dispute any of this. After all, isn’t healthy debate a positive thing?

    Man-made carbon emissions are thought to be a primary driver of increasing global temperatures by the “believers”. However, CO2 is a very, very small component of the atmosphere (less than 4 tenths of 1 percent). Further, the vast majority, more than 95% of CO2 emissions come from natural sources such as volcanism, the oceans and biomass. The earth is continually releasing and absorbing carbon dioxide keeping things roughly in balance. However, analysis of ice core samples show considerable fluctuations in CO2 levels over thousands of millennia. Moreover, there is an exceptional positive correlation between periods of warmer temperatures and CO2 density. It appears that the highest levels of CO2 are observed following a warm period. Believers in man-made global warming assume higher carbon dioxide levels drive global warming. But they may have it backwards. Increased temperatures, primarily driven by natural causes such as variations in solar intensity and El Nino, appear to result in greater releases of carbon dioxide. Further, CO2 is not a pollutant. It is beneficial to life. During the Jurassic period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, levels of CO2 are believed to have been 5 times higher than today. It seems that in spite of all this “pollution”, of high CO2 levels, conditions were favorable for growing some rather large and healthy specimens (although they probably had smelly feet from sweating too much).

    Cyclical variations in temperature have been occurring throughout earth’s history. In more recent times, we had a medieval warm period followed by a little ice age. I suppose some might blame the increase on flatulent cows and the use of horses, but then, how do you explain the subsequent cooling during the little ice age? To think that a reduction in mankind’s modest contribution to the total CO2 in the atmosphere is going to make a significant difference in climate is nothing but hubris. We have been coming out of a little ice age. Now it appears that this warming trend may be reversing. Some might contend that this is not true. They might cite the recent warm winter here in the northern United States. But try to ask those hundreds of people who froze to death in Europe what they think. Many scientists, including Mann and Glieck agree that we have not seen average global temperatures rise since 1998. Their models predict continued warming. It seems quite clear that their models are not predictive. I do not think anyone has a good understanding of this incredibly complex system.

    Back to my point, Obama’s energy policies including cap and tax, efforts to discourage use of North American fossil fuels and EPA mandates do not solve a problem. But they do result in increased energy costs, a less competitive business environment, and ultimately, a lower standard of living.

    I’ll say it again… bad policies, driven by bad science.

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